March 28, 2012 If you're planning on taking a break in the British countryside this summer, you may find yourself accompanied by an unwelcome guest.
Campers and hikers have been warned to beware of ticks - tiny spider-like blood-suckers - that transmit Lyme disease, as the number of people affected in the UK has been rising in recent years. If left untreated, the disease can lead to serious symptoms affecting the joints, nervous system, and, in rare cases, the heart.
Experts estimate that between 2,000 and 3,000 infections occur each year in England and Wales, most of which go unrecorded.
In 2010 there were 905 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in England and Wales, compared with 340 in 2002. The vast majority were acquired in the UK rather than overseas, mostly in southern England. Late spring, early summer and autumn are peak times for tick bites and coincide with people venturing outdoors.
Lyme disease is often picked up through recreational activities such as camping, hiking and mountain biking as the ticks lurk in forests, heaths and moorland.
Places where known infections have occurred include popular holiday spots such as Exmoor, the New Forest, the South Downs, the Lake District, the Yorkshire moors and the Highlands. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) has urged people to take precautions to reduce their risk of contracting the disease.
Speaking at the start of Tick Bite Prevention Week, which runs until April 1, the HPA's head of zoonotic infections, Dr Hilary Kirkbride, said: 'With the warmer weather upon us, more people will be planning outdoor activities. 'Being active outdoors is great for our health, but as this is also the time of the year ticks become active, taking some simple precautions can help to keep you and your family safe from tick bites and reduce the risk of Lyme disease.' The HPA has issued a list of key points to remember to avoid being bitten or infected in tick-infested areas. These include wearing long-sleeved shirts and long trousers tucked into socks, using insect repellents and taking a shower or bath after returning from a tick-infested area.
The HPA also advised people to check their skin, clothing and the fur of pets, while also inspecting the head and neck areas of children, carefully removing any attached ticks.
Dr Kirkbride added: 'Ticks that can transmit Lyme disease are very small - about the size of a poppy seed - and can easily be overlooked, so it is important to check regularly for attached ticks on the skin.' An attached tick should be removed with care using tweezers, grasping it close to the skin.